Addressing Climate Change with the Federal Government: A Summer at Golden Gate National Recreation Area

My experience this summer was a bit different than that of most students finishing their first year of a doctoral program. Rather than sticking around to do research, I headed out West as part of a program designed to give students the opportunity to work on pressing climate change-related management challenges with the National Park Service (NPS).

The Future Park Leaders of Emerging Change (FPL) is a program of the NPS Climate Change Response Program; it’s at its heart a program to recruit young talent to Federal Service. Students – we ranged from undergraduate rising seniors to a newly minted PhD – spend their summer at different national park units or offices around the country working on twelve-week research and management projects. The program culminates with a professional development symposium at the end of the summer where we were able to meet staff from across the Department of the Interior (DOI) at all stages of their careers working on climate change issues from one angle or another. We spent the week in Fort Collins at the Climate Change Response Program headquarters talking about federal climate change research, job opportunities in DOI, and all the tips-and-tricks for connecting with federal employment (and dealing with its unique challenges).

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The Professional Development Symposium in August in Fort Collins was an opportunity for all program participants to learn more about DOI jobs and federal service, but also a chance for us to meet each other in-person and hear about all our different projects (and a chance to go hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park!).

The other primary goal of the FPL program if to help individual national park units or offices get valuable and much needed assistance with critical management challenges. This year, there were ten of us placed all over, from the high country of Mt. Rainier to watery Biscayne National Park in south Florida. One student was working on acquiring a Dark Sky Certification for Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. Another was developing a bacterial water quality citizen science monitoring program at swampy Congaree National Park in South Carolina. Two students were in Arizona – one using tree cores to develop a historical record of snowfall in arid Saguaro National Park and another assessing erosion risk to cultural resources in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument right on the Mexican border. Other projects included assessing the extent and impact of coral disease, developing climate change vulnerability metrics at historical parks in the Northeast, and building a predictive model for historical cultural resources in collaboration with a local native tribe. The diversity of projects reflects the diversity of park needs and challenges, as well as the diversity of students the program is trying to recruit.

My project was to develop a formal protocol and standard operating procedures for monitoring shoreline change and coastal topography at Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) in California’s Bay Area. Coastal parks around the country are increasingly threatened by sea level rise and climate change-driven flooding, which poses a threat to park infrastructure, facilities, and natural resources. But these challenges are particularly acute at GGNRA, where the park’s sandy beaches typically abut semi-urban development and draw some of the largest crowds in the national park system. In addition, GGNRA is unique in that it’s not one contiguous park. Rather, it’s a conglomeration of various units – and various jurisdictions as a result – across the region, from Silicon Valley up to Pt. Reyes. These challenges limit the potential of landward migration of park infrastructure and ecosystems and restricts the use of other traditional adaptation strategies, particularly at some of the park’s more remote sites.

These are very urgent problems the park has been grappling with for years. The challenges are most obvious at the beaches of Marin County: Stinson, Muir, and Rodeo. Stinson, in particular, has been identified as one of the communities in the Bay Area most vulnerable to sea level rise and climate change-driven flooding. Just last year, the nearby creek overtopped its banks and flooded the entire parking lot, blowing through a new opening in the dunes along the beach. However, despite recent studies, information is still limited on the geomorphic processes – sediment supply, erosion, beach migration – at play at these beaches. This information gap severely limits the park’s planning and coastal adaptation efforts. In response, the park’s 2017 Resource Stewardship Strategy identified the development of a Marin County beach geomorphology program as a high priority.

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The parking lot at Stinson Beach is still unusable after flooding in April 2018 from the nearby creek destroyed a section of the parking lot and blew a new opening in the dunes.

That’s where I came in. Having reliable data on shoreline position and seasonal and annual variation in beach width will help park staff calculate shoreline migration, erosion rates, and sediment supply, which can, in turn, inform coastal management and adaptation efforts. Although park staff had been doing some topography monitoring at Muir Beach since 2012 (in response to creek and lagoon restoration), it was in an ad hoc manner, and they hadn’t had the time to do the involved work required to develop a comprehensive monitoring protocol to ensure that data collected year-to-year is consistent. As such, my objectives included assessing the park’s existing monitoring efforts, becoming familiar with similar protocols from other parks, and formalizing a protocol that incorporates best practices, but also meets park needs and accommodates existing resources.

The first step was data collection, which also provided me an opportunity to learn about the technology and different surveying techniques. Using similar protocols from within the park system and from the USGS, who have been doing this kind of monitoring in San Francisco since 2004, I was able to refine and formalize our existing approach. Then, I tested my methods by collecting another year’s worth of data at Muir Beach and pilot data, to establish baseline conditions, at Stinson Beach.

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The actual process of data collection involved setting up a base GPS station (left) that communicates both with overhead satellites and a roving GPS station, which I carry using a retrofitted backpack (right) as I walk up and down the beach, collecting elevation and position data at different points.

After data collection, I developed analysis techniques and products for Muir and Stinson Beaches that would be both useful and usable by the park and partner organizations. Using Excel, ArcGIS, and specialized survey software, I developed plots and maps showing landward shoreline migration, cross-sectional beach morphology, and elevation loss. I also developed templates to make the analysis simple as monitoring is initiated at additional sites in the future.

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An example of one of the plots we created using the data collected shows the annual migration of the beach shoreline (roughly, the mean high water mark) at Muir Beach since 2012.

The primary product of this project, though, was the protocol itself. The protocol outlines the conceptual framework, overarching objectives, and sampling and analysis design of the monitoring program. It’s a high-level document meant to broadly guide monitoring efforts and inform any future decision-making as questions, technology, and management paradigms evolve. The SOPs are more specific. They contain step-by-step instructions for mission planning, conducting the survey, analysis and reporting, and data management. These are to ensure that data is collected and managed in a formal, reliable manner year-to-year to ensure consistency between surveys and facilitate inter-survey comparisons of data.

It’ll take a few years until the impact of the protocol will actually be felt by GGNRA staff. They are taking it out in September to essentially give it a test-run. The hope is that an intern, with limited familiarity with this equipment and these sites, is able to pick up my document and both collect reliable, accurate data and do all the analyses and reporting that follows. Hopefully, in a few years, they’ll have enough survey data to have a solid enough grasp of the local geomorphology that they can then get to addressing the real challenge of using that information to make difficult decisions for the people, facilities, and ecosystems of GGNRA in an era of climate change.

About the Author: Leah Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, where she focuses on integrating equity and resilience into climate adaptation to address urban flooding. Prior to UNC, she worked in the environmental nonprofit sector in California advocating for progressive water quality and coastal resilience.

Featured Image: Rodeo Beach in Marin County, California where the Natural Resources Division of Golden Gate National Recreation Area is based (and where I was paid to live for three months!).